Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Portable Gaming Console-ation Prizes: Vol. 1

About a month ago, just days before Puyo Tetris came out and would captivate me again, I was looking for ways to kill a bit of time.  I had recently finished Dragon Quest VII and wasn't looking to jump into any big endeavors (though I'd end up starting and finishing Dragon Quest IX within the next month).  I have an enormous backlog that goes back generations (of consoles) so naturally instead of starting anything from that, I reached for a bargain bin $1 Game Boy Color game that I'd gotten and played a bit of on my recent vacation.  I'm referring to Driver, a conversion of the 1999 PS1 game.  The game itself was a decent game that felt somewhat true to the original, but the game isn't what this post is about.  Instead, what the game really did for me was get me thinking about other console-to-handheld conversions.  I of course saw these all the time growing up but mostly ignored them.  After all, if I had the capability to play the "real" version of a game, why would I want to play something that barely resembled it?

At the time, I didn't.  Quite frankly, for the most part, I still don't but I can appreciate them a lot more in retrospect.  There's a certain level of creativity involved in trying to convert a 3D console game into a portable 2D pixelated one that's recognizable to fans of the original.  A lot of these "downsized" conversions fall short of their source material, but I think some of that might be due to unfair expectations of players.  As I mentioned before, it's easy to view these as inferior to the "real" versions and not give them a second look.  I still hear people scoff when I mention Ghost Babel as being a great Metal Gear game because oftentimes it's just not seen as a "real" Metal Gear game.  I'm not going to argue that point this time though, and instead will just point to Ghost Babel as an example of a stellar job in bringing a console experience to a much less powerful machine.  It's also a good example since I was mostly thinking of Game Boy Color and Game Boy Advance when I became interested in this topic.  Without blathering on any further, I think it's time to start looking at some of the MANY examples of these console conversions.

The EXTREME Sports Game

Ahh yes, thanks Tony Hawk's Pro Skater.  There were certainly extreme sports games previously like California Games, 720, and Skate or Die, but I don't think many people will argue against THPS's popularity.  The original PS1 game was a smash hit that created an extensive franchise, so it's only natural there would be portable offerings of Tony Hawk on the GBC and GBA (and don't forget about that N-gage version!)

On GBC, the original THPS consisted of two modes: an over-head race mode and a half-pipe mode seen from a 2D side perspective. The half-pipe looks like it would get old pretty fast but at least is true to the original concept of getting scored for doing tricks.  The race mode... that one I don't quite get if we're talking about trying to capture the spirit of the console version.  The sequel as well as the third game on GBC seem to try and follow the classic formula a little closer, giving players an "open" map that they can freely explore in a top-down-like fashion while they execute tricks and find pickups. More faithful may not be better in this case though, as it seems like that perspective just doesn't allow players to see enough to be able to plan their next trick.  

On GBA, there were ports of THPS 2-4, Tony Hawk's Underground 1+2, AND American Sk8land which all handled the gameplay in the same way.  They attempt to simulate a 3D world by using my least favorite of video game perspectives: ISOMETRIC. Admittedly, these conversions definitely resemble the original games, but look like they would be extremely difficult to tell when you'd land on a rail to grind and add points and when you'd simply pass by in front or back of it. They must have sold at least somewhat well though for them to do it SIX times.

The GBA Tony Hawk legacy doesn't end there though, and there's one last entry that tried to push against the limitations of the GBA even further with the 2006 release of Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam.  Yes, the 2006 release of a GBA game.  It was released two weeks after the DS version and two weeks before the Wii version, which would be followed by the PS2 version released in 2007.  What a crazy mess of releases of the "same" game.  Sorry for getting sidetracked, I just got hung up on that while I was looking up info on the game.

Anyway, the GBA version of Downhill Jam is a truly 3D game.  That's right, no isometric BS here, just horrible draw distances and polygons with nearly no textures.  It's an impressive technical feat, but it obviously doesn't hold up very well and looks sluggish.  Still, bless their hearts for trying.

Moving away from skateboards, but wanting more of that sweet, sweet cash from THPS style games, Activision published Mat Hoffman's Pro BMX (GBC/GBA).  Of course it wasn't just Activision that had a BMX game, and it wasn't just BMX when it came to extreme sports represented on handhelds. Acclaim had Aggressive Inline (GBA) and Dave Mirra Freestyle BMX (GBC) with 2 sequels (GBA)  while Activision's extreme sports lineup included Shaun Palmer's Snowboarder (GBC/GBA) and Kelly Slater's Pro Surfer (GBA).  Without going into EXTREME (sorry) detail, these all play identically to the styles I've mentioned above, minus the full 3D approach of Downhill Jam, so I don't think I need to address each one individually.  I will however add that there were GBC and GBA versions of Razor Freestyle Scooter.  They're still more of that standard isometric view we see in all of these games, I just nearly had forgotten how popular those things were around 2000.  Oi, these games are making me feel old...

With that, I think it's time to draw this thing to a close.  Frankly, I've looked at more isometric games than I would have liked to see in a lifetime and I think I've covered the majority of bigger name titles. There were a few sports represented in the MTV Sports games, but again, they're very similar to the other more well-known titles mentioned above.  Aside from the console versions of THPS 1-3, I can't say I have a lot of personal experience with these games but there were so many and they all had to tackle the issue of converting a polygonal 3D game into something playable on a much less powerful handheld, I couldn't just ignore them.  Regardless, bear with me as I think I'll tackle a genre I'm more attached to in my next installment of this series.

For now, I leave you with some final musings-

A miserable, deplorable ad for THPS and the N-gage:

as well as this hilariously awful intro to Shaun Palmer's Pro Snowboarding (GBC) complete with attempts at FMV:

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Tom Clancy's Shoot 'n' Loot

Yep.  I participated in a shooter beta over the past weekend.  Some small spot in hell must have frozen over.  To be fair, this isn't the first time.  Destiny, Battlefront, Black Ops III, and Battlefield: Hardline all had betas that I messed around in.  The difference this time?  I put 10 hours into it.  Most of the other betas I popped into were just to play a few deathmatches among friends.  The reason I downloaded this one was pretty much the same but that's not what kept me in it for all that time.  In fact, it's the lack of a true deathmatch that kept me there.

The normal "campaign" side of Tom Clancy's The Division doesn't have any original ideas.  It's a cover-based 3rd-person shooter with a loot system like that of Destiny or Borderlands.  I don't mean for that to be derogatory at all, it's just a very safe co-op shooter.  Go to mission start, blast people along the way, eventually get to a "no respawn zone" with an elite enemy, kill 'em and loot 'em.  Rinse and repeat.  If you've got buds playing with you, that's probably reason enough to get the game, honestly.  While it follows Destiny's formula pretty closely, missions are separated by open-world sections that have collectibles and minor skirmishes with NPC's to give you something to do along the way.  That said, the trip from one mission to another can be pretty uneventful, but as more missions are completed, more fast travel spots will be available, so I don't think it will be much of a problem.

With the missions completed, and a few collectibles found, it was time to switch gears and leave the friendly world of PvE and predictable AI behind to enter the dangerous, bloodthirsty world of PvP.  Knowing my lack of skill in shooting games, I took a deep breath and entered the game's "Dark Zone" expecting the worst.  I didn't get what I was expecting.  I didn't get shot upon entering.  I didn't see any lobbies.  No team deatchmatches or even free-for-all deathmatches were anywhere to be found.  What the hell had I stumbled into?  Upon further inspection, I realized the Division's Dark Zone isn't a traditional PvP mode, but instead is an open world, filled with hostile NPC's and feels more similar to GTA Online's freemode than a standard shooter.  How the Dark Zone works is that essentially everyone enters as a "neutral" agent.  You'll see other players running around, but pretty much everyone sticks to their guns (pun intended), hunting NPC's in hopes of decent loot drops.  So what's the difference between the Dark Zone and the game's normal play?  Well, there's a catch to your loot in the Dark Zone.  It isn't yours until you've extracted it via helicopter, which requires firing a flare to call in a chopper for extraction.  Firing said flare highlights your location and alerts the public that a chopper is coming in to pick up some loot.  90 seconds later, the chopper arrives and can pick up around 5 players' loot.  Well, as you may have guessed, sessions have more than 5 players and no one likes being left out... Sure, another chopper can be called, but that's like another 2 minutes, dammit.  You've got bullets, but little patience... Your white flag gets splattered with red as you fire into the public...  See, loot dropped by NPC's in the Dark Zone is game-specific.  If you see it, it's yours and no one else can pick it up.  If a player is killed holding loot however, their loot becomes up for grabs to anyone in the session.  I shouldn't have to explain how the game can erupt into violence here.

And yet... what I find so appealing about the Dark Zone is how unpredictable it is.  There were several times where I called a helicopter, had my loot extracted along with some other public players', we waved/saluted each other and went our separate ways.  Conversely, my friend was shot and killed as he was attempting to leave the Dark Zone even though he visibly was carrying no loot.  It should be noted however, that firing upon a non-hostile agent will mark you as "rogue," highlighting you for all the public to see.  While my empty-handed friend may have been killed, vigilante justice was swift with 6 or more players gunning down my friend's killer, cheering upon their speedy demise.  That was a defining moment for me with The Division's beta.  I felt like I was part of some kind of social experiment.  You're more than welcome to try and kill every player you come across, but you'll be marked a jackass and likely assassinated by an unforgiving public.  Then again, on the other side of things, you may see a rogue agent in the distance and decide, "Hey, I just found a decent piece of loot, I'm not going anywhere NEAR them!"  It's a bizarre structure that's sure to disappoint those looking for a more conventional deathmatch, but at least on some level, I think it works.  I don't know how long the appeal will last, but at least for a time it was neat just to see how everyone interacted with each other.  Every extraction can be a standoff, with tensions high and itchy trigger fingers.  People can be jerks just to be jerks, or they can join your cause, providing a helping hand in dealing with NPC's and hunting down loot.  Uncertainty isn't always a good thing, but here it's a driving force that makes The Division's multiplayer stand out among the dozens of shooters that seem to be released every week.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

2015 Retrospective

Let's pretend that I haven't abandoned my blog dozens of times over the past 5 years and press forward, shall we?

With the passing of 2015 and arrival of 2016, every gaming website and video game enthusiast compiles a list of games from the year prior in an effort to hone in on their favorites.  In other words: You know the drill.  Top 10's, Top 5's, the best and the worst of the year.  We've all seen dozens of these lists, so... 2 weeks into the next year, of COURSE people would like another one, yeah?  Maybe?  In any event, while I've done my best to narrow it to 10, they should not be read in any particular order.  Many a silly internet fight has begun with "You put X below Y?!?!  HOW STUPID CAN YOU POSS-" which is why I don't particularly care for numbering 10 to 1 in the traditional fashion.  That said, most people can at least decide on their favorite game of the year, which brings me to the first game of the list: Rocket League.

Yup, that ridiculous soccer-like game where you drive the cars around into a giant ball.  Ontop of that, it wasn't even much of a debate for me.  Few of the other games on this list kept me entertained as much as Rocket League did in 2015, and I can almost promise you that none of them will continue to keep me coming back in 2016 the way that Rocket League will.  A hole in my heart was formed as my gaming buddies jumped from one generation into the next and Daytona Night died.  I predict everyone reading this will know what that means but for those who don't, a group of friends and I would play Daytona USA on Xbox Live on a weekly basis.  It was a silly game that brought us together for a lot of fun and laughs, and it broke my heart to see it go when we all jumped from the last generation of consoles into the current ones.  The only thing that's come close to filling that oval-shaped void is the feeling I get as I barrel past my friends in an attempt to make a desperate save only to whiff it and fire the ball straight into my own goal, that thrill I get when I actually manage to hit the ball when it's airbone instead of wasting my boost to go flying past it, and that crazy shot that somehow manages to slowly roll from one goal into the other to end the game.  The game is as casual or competitive as the people you play it with and works on both levels.  The matches are just short enough that it's impossible to say no to a rematch sometimes.  My choice for Rocket League as GOTY was solidified later in the year when "mutators" were added, allowing players to alter aspects of the game such as the arena's gravity or size/shape of the ball, making for some pretty ridiculous games.  Rocket League is a multiplayer masterpiece that I'll always be happy to revisit now and then for a couple matches.  Good on ya, RL.

There is one other 2015 game that can rival Rocket League on its replayability.  Super Mario Maker allows for an infinite amount of levels to play and although they vary greatly in quality, it's still appealing to know you'll never play the same level twice (though you'll play your share of levels that play themselves).  Mario Maker's real achievement isn't in its playing however, but rather its level designing. Nintendo makes use of the WiiU's gamepad (a rare feat!) in a way that allows for nearly effortless level creation.  That's where Mario Maker stands out against its level-designing competitors like Little Big Planet.  Without question, a skilled creator can do a lot more with LBP's tools than Mario Maker's, but that's just the thing.  A skilled creator.  Not just skill either, but time and LOTS of it.  Mario Maker thrives on its simplicity, allowing a first-time user to make an entertaining level in 20 minutes or so.  Of course a player can put a lot more time a into level, but that's the player's choice.  Hours and hours of learning isn't mandatory.  With Nintendo putting out updates, it's easy to see even more replayability in the future.  Hang on, NINTENDO updated one of their games!?  Maybe Mario Maker should win GOTY just for managing to get Nintendo to do that.

There isn't a whole lot to say here since... y'know.  It's Mega Man.  Tight controls, gameplay and a killer soundtrack.  I remember first scoffing at the release of Mega Man Legacy Collection.  "It's only 1-6?  Bah!  Those Capcom bastards."  (It should be noted that I don't always get along with Capcom.)  While I definitely would have liked to see 7 and 8 on there (or maybe 9 and 10 since they're more in line with the visual style of 1-6) MMLC is still plenty of bang for your buck, especially considering that "buck" is only $15.  Throw in a music player, a substantial amount artwork for each of the games and some challenge levels with leaderboards and you've got yourself a nice little collection.  Special thanks for leaving in the designated pause button exclusive to MM1 unlike in Mega Man Anniversary Collection back on PS2/GC/Xbox.  No one really wants to fight Yellow Devil legitimately do they?

While I'm still praising Capcom games instead of cursing them, I'd like to thank them for the re-REmake.  Title jokes aside, there's less to say about this one than the Mega Man Legacy Collection, it's simply an HD port of the Gamecube release with (busted as hell) leaderboards and achievements.  It has a heftier price at $20, but it's a nice port of arguably the best of its genre and while I can't believe I'm praising achievements, the achievements will make you attempt the scarier runs of the game like playing with invisible enemies or beating the game without saving.  Still miss that PS1 dialogue though.


It doesn't get much more charming than this.  Woolly World is essentially the gameplay of Yoshi's Island with the aesthetic of Kirby Epic Yarn.  Much like Kirby Epic Yarn, playing locally with a friend is an option that at times feels wonky since the game was designed around being played by one player, but still works.  Also not unlike Kirby Epic Yarn, it's over very quickly if you don't go after any collectibles, but it's a fun and adorable treat while it lasts.  The soundtrack is mostly very light and bouncy but varies and features some FUNKY beats in the fortresses and a few other sections.  It's fairly standard Nintendo, but the charm and soundtrack are enough to make the list for me.

Oh yeah, no way I'm not including this one in the year's favorites.  If you know me at all, you've probably heard that I might kind of enjoy Out Run.  Just a bit.  Just having an accurate port of one of my all-time favorite video games in a portable format would be enough, and is already an achievement on its own.  Arcade games always got inaccurate ports to home consoles and Out Run is certainly no exception.  Developer M2 definitely knows how to make an accurate port, but 3D Out Run goes above and beyond.  While the original arcade version is preserved and intact here, they've also added a version that runs at 60 fps (compared to the original's 30) and has optional vehicle mods to add a little variety by allowing you to reach higher top speeds or have better handling and alter the car's physical appearance.  That said, I've only tried the mods once just to see what they were.  The original game is just too good.  Oh, and 3D Out Run is not to be confused with Out Run 3D.  That one's a Sega Master system game that will fetch you like $200+ on eBay.

Another well-known fact about me: I love rhythm games.  Among my favorite games for the PSP were the DJ Max Portable games.  After that it was the DJ Max Technika series because I was fortunate enough to have access to the arcade machine.  Actually, My love of that arcade game was what originally persuaded (read "tricked") me into getting a PS Vita with the release of DJ Max Technika Tune, which is more or less a port of the arcade game.  Unfortunately, the Vita version couldn't hope to capture the same gameplay on such a small screen, so I was left feeling a little disappointed.  The hyper-catchy K-Pop was there as was the touch screen, it just was too cramped to play well.  Well, several years later we've got Superbeat Xonic from the same developers as DJ Max and this time the layout is much more conducive to the Vita.  Not only that, but you can choose to abandon the touch screen all together and play with the buttons and joysticks (which is arguably the better control option anyways).  Unfortunately, it doesn't quite live up to its predecessors because here you're just playing ontop of the music instead of actually generating it.  Still, it's a solid rhythm game that I can't imagine will show up in too many other people's 2015 lists.

Not a whole lot to say here, it's just Borderlands 2 and the Pre-Sequel and their DLC campaigns and characters, but they run a WHOLE LOT BETTER than they did on the last gen consoles.  Yeah yeah, I know, PC MASTER RACE blah blah.  For console gamers, the Handsome Collection is a major step-up from what they're used to.  Shoot a lot of things, get a lot of loot.  A great time with friends. 


Here's another quick entry, which seems fitting for Just Cause 3.  The game gets right to the point unlike Just Cause 2.  It knows you don't care about its poorly written story and right from the start loads you up with explosives, the famous grapple hook, and a new wingsuit.  You still unlock abilities as you progress to allow for even more proposterous things like a JUMP BUTTON for land vehicles.  I can't say I've put a ton of time into this one yet, but it'll be a toybox I'll revisit from time to time just to mess around with.  It's goofy, over-the-top open world fun, plain and simple.

Warning: I have not finished MGS V: The Phantom Pain and am therefore according to most gamers a terrible person.  However, I'm not just putting this on here in an attempt to prevent them from coming to beat me up.   MGS V is technically impressive and succeeds in creating a big open-world stealth game where threats can come from any angle.  Players are given a lot of options in how to deal with these threats and objectives which makes for lot of "in the moment" excitement.  It also means that the few times in story missions when players have their options taken away from them, the gameplay takes a significant hit.  From what I've heard, I actually haven't hit the second "roadblock" mission, but the first one was a frustrating mess that resulted in me cheesing through it in a fashion that was neither fun or rewarding.  The story isn't much motivation to keep playing either, as it's delivered in tiny chunks that sometimes won't come out for several hours at a time.  Then again, the story is one of the weaker aspects of the game, so this isn't much of a loss.  All in all, when it DOES hit its highs, MGS V is an amazing game, it just requires a little extra patience at times.

So there we have a collection of 10 games (again, not ranked from 1-10) but there's several others I think are worthy of being here, so I'm going to do a few hyper-quick summaries on some honorable mentions:
Rare Replay: $30 for 30 games.  Many of them actually good.  Would get the day I got an XBone

Zelda Triforce Heroes- fun multiplayer but falters with massive internet connection issues  (Also 3 people are REQUIRED for the game to be any fun.)

Dragon Quest Heroes- Beautiful character designs and DQ fanservice.  Takes out some of the problematic things from other Musou games.

Hatsune Miku Project Mirai DX- Chibi version of the Project Diva games.  In other words, more rhythm games

Payday 2 Crimewave Edition: Looks gross, but had a discounted price and is fun with friends

Majora's Mask 3D- An excellent update to the oddball Zelda

King's Quest- Charming Adventure game that doesn't kill you every second like old Sierra.  

Before I say farewell to the games of 2015, I'd like to point out a few of the games that could very well have shown up in this list had I gotten around to playing them.  Undertale gets nothing but praise and seems like something I would enjoy a lot as well.  Rodea seems like a bizarre Sega joint that I'd like to give a shot too.  Finally, I can almost guarantee that I'd be a fan of Yakuza 5, I was just deterred by its digital-only release combined with my lack of PS3 harddrive space.  I will get to it though, and probably love it.

With that, it's time to finally wrap this bloated post up and look ahead towards the games of 2016.  There are several games on the horizon I'm excited for, so maybe we're in for another great year of video games.  Hey, new year... new things... Maybe I'll even get back into writing these silly things?  Crazier things have happened.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Majora's Memories

It sure has been a long time...  There are a lot of different things I could come back to blogging with (that month I played an MMO for example) but I want to start by going back even further.  Long before I got my PS4, or even PS3 for that matter.  Back to when I was a wee lad of only 12, reading my EGM's and always looking forward to the future of games (what the heck happened??)  Few series had me more excited than the Legend of Zelda, and after Ocarina of Time proved to me that the series successfully managed that terrifying leap from 2D into 3D, it should come as no surprise that I was overjoyed to hear there was going to be another Zelda game on the N64.  Looking at the early screenshots, it didn't look all that different from Ocarina of Time graphically, but I didn't care.  I was gearing up to enter another massive world, explore a plethora of new dungeons and become enveloped in adventure once again.  Needless to say, I was in for a surprise.

Now before I continue to write anything else about Majora's Mask, I want to point out that this is entirely from memory.  I wanted to jot down my memories of Majora's Mask before I dove back into it with the new 3DS remake.  err... um... not NEW 3DS remake, but the new remake that's for the 3DS... and the new 3DS.  Whatever.  In any case, I wanted to do a "before and after" for this one because it's been so long since I've played the original.  I replayed Ocarina of Time several times before the 3DS remake, partly due to that amazing bonus disc I got for pre-ordering Wind Waker, but I had replayed it even prior to that.  Majora's Mask on the other hand, I only played once when it was fairly new.  I remember enjoying it quite a bit, but I just never revisited it.  When I was hungering that "Zelda style" in a game, Ocarina was what I'd turn to.  It stays truer to the classic formula of beating dungeons and getting items to progress.  Majora's Mask as I recall really only has 4 true dungeons.  It was much more about the people you meet in Clock Town and throughout Termina.  It was a very different experience from any previous Zelda game, making it revered by some and condemned by others.  I'm thankful I kept an open mind, as it allowed me to take in what I would consider the darkest and most unique entry in the entire series (including all of the games that came after it). 

One thing I definitely remember about Majora's Mask is its initial time loop and being stuck as a deku scrub.  If I remember correctly, it's a pretty long time before you can remove that mask and reclaim your human form.  I have to admit, this is one of the things that's been keeping me from starting the game on the 3DS.  I know I'll want to get far enough to become human again, and that takes some time.  (Again, I apologize for the random nature of this post, I just really wanted to see what I remembered from MM and what all I've forgotten)

I think what I remember most though is how important it was to learn the trick to slowing down the passage of time.  I always felt a little like I was cheating though since I think it was my brother that figured it out and taught me how to do it.  Not only that, but the difference in time passage was tremendous.  In fact, I remember finding it humorous how slowly the villagers would move after that trick was performed, since they all are on set schedules, having to arrive in certain places at certain times.  It certainly was bizarre, but that's kind of the name of the game when it comes to Majora.

"Bizarre" is a good word for some of the music in Majora too.  I remember feeling legitimately uncomfortable hearing some of the game's soundtrack.  At least one song sounded like it was being played in reverse, and several of the others had very dissonant, clashing chords in them.  Even the song you played to travel to owl statues had an unpleasant sound to it.  Considering the game is about the apocalypse and how people deal with their impending doom, it's only appropriate to have a creepier soundtrack to match the tone, but it did so effectively and left an impression on me. 

This has already gone on longer than I thought it would, but I'd like to end it remembering my biggest pros and cons.  I think what really grabbed me was just how dark the tone was and seeing how the different characters lived their final days.  This is something I think I'll appreciate even more at an older age.  Some of the townsfolk wanted to die where they lived, others wanted to do everything they could to leave in search of safety.  Still others were in denial until their final moments, feeling sure that they would be safe "somehow."  Pretty heavy themes for any game in general, much less a Zelda game. 

I do remember some nuisances as well though, which might be part of why I never revisited this one until now.  Granted, I was 12, so I'd like to think my critical thinking and puzzle solving skills have improved since then, but I remember having little to no idea as to how to get some of the masks.  I know I printed out at least a few sheets on how to get all of the masks, but so help you if you missed any of the necessary steps along the way.  You'd just have to restart the loop.  I vaguely remember some annoyance with searching for hidden fairies in dungeons using the great fairy's mask, but I don't think it was necessary and I don't recall doing it much. 

Overall though, what I remember most is the overwhelming sense of "weird" I got from playing Majora's Mask.  At a quick glance, it didn't look much different from Ocarina of Time, but as soon as I dug into it, it didn't seem like it at all or like anything I'd ever played.  Plus it had Tingle... how much weirder can you get?  I guess I'll find out as I revisit the weird, doomed world of Termina once more.  

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Heavenly Indeed

I've got a good friend who's musically inclined and loves quirky/unique games. When asked whether or not he had seen Rhythm Heaven, the moment I found out he hadn't, I knew something had to be done. Something was done. He played through the entire game of Rhythm Heaven Fever right then and there. I had almost as much fun watching someone else enjoy the game as when I played through it. Seeing which games he excelled at, which he struggled with... "That one's hard for you? No way! This one's much easier than the last!" The game plays with you rhythmically, so naturally some games will click with you more than others. There was one game in particular that my friend just couldn't seem to get the hang of. I know he's musically talented, so I couldn't understand why he didn't seem to get it. I told him to listen more, but obviously that's easier said than done. His solution wasn't necessarily to listen more, but rather to look less. He looked away, ignoring the screen, relying only on what he heard. Apparently, whatever was throwing him off visually no longer affected him as he passed the game with little to no mistakes.

That's when it really occurred to me. When a lot of people hear the words, "rhythm game," they think Rock Band or Guitar Hero. They're not wrong, and anyone who knows me knows I certainly enjoy those games. However, there's a key element that those games are missing that's present in Rhythm Heaven Fever: The need to actually listen. Rock Band and Guitar Hero are pointless without sound, sure, but they can be played without sound. The Xbox 360 version of Guitar Hero 3 illustrates this nicely, as there's even an achievement called, "tone deaf," for completing a song on expert with the in-game sound options being turned down to zero. Guitar Hero, Rock Band, DDR, and so many others... The music is what makes the game fun... but the music isn't what makes the game. Rhythm Heaven is based entirely on auditory cues, the visuals just bring it together. The visual cues help you identify when you're just slightly off or wrong all-together. A few of the games could be played without sound, but fire up one of the remixes, and the mashup of games would be nothing but utter chaos without the game's driving rhythm.

Fans of the series already know this and won't be disappointed if they go in eagerly anticipating more of the same. That being said, there's one key difference that gives this latest installment an edge over its DS predecessor. While the DS game's tap-and-flick control scheme works, it just doesn't match the precision that comes with actual buttons. As much as you might want to blame the controller, If your internal metronome is off, you've no one to blame but yourself.

Well... almost no one to blame. It's absolutely necessary that you have a setup with no lag for this game. I'm sure there are already used copies on Gamestop shelves for just this reason. "This game's impossible!" I hear them cry. Unfortunately, if their setup has any lag, they're not wrong. The instruction booklet addresses this problem: "You may notice with some television sets that there appears to be a slight delay between button presses and the game reacting. Please note that this does not indicate there is damage to your television." What the instruction booklet neglects to mention is any solution to the problem. There's no in-game way of dealing with sound syncing issues. As someone who still plays the majority of his games on an old tube television, the thought had barely crossed my mind, but it's a significant issue. Rhythm Heaven isn't very lenient and demands precise timing. A laggy TV is all it would take to transform this charmingly quirky gem into a frustrating and broken waste of time.

The only real issue the game has outside of TV setup problems is that it's a bit short. Its short length doesn't hit quite so hard though, as the game sports a lower than usual $30 price tag. Besides that, as with most rhythm games, there's replay value simply in playing some of your favorite tunes over again. There's also a two-player mode but it's certainly not the main attraction. All in all, Rhythm Heaven Fever is an excellent rhythm game that will challenge you to actually listen and find the beat. Admittedly, the game certainly isn't for everyone, but if you think you might be interested, find a way to give the game a shot. If it doesn't click with you, you're not alone, I'm certain. If it does click with you though, you'll be tapping your toes along with a collection of masterfully-crafted mini-games that will test your sense of rhythm and leave you smiling.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

"Fuzzy Pickles!"

I once heard someone say, "There are two kinds of people. Those that like Earthbound and those who haven't played it." While that may or may not be true, Earthbound, as well as the rest of the Mother series, has an extremely dedicated fanbase. I'm not going to claim to know much about the Mother series as Earthbound is my first excursion into it, but with all its loving fans, I knew I had to eventually play Earthbound, and I'm glad I did.

With that said though, I can't say I loved the game from start to finish. I'm not even sure I can say I loved the game. At the start of the game, I was entertained, but not impressed. To me, it seemed it was just Dragon Quest with a quirky coat of paint. That in itself is not a bad thing, but it wasn't enough for me to understand the love and attention that Earthbound gets. It felt even more like Dragon Quest in the first area of the game as I found it necessary to grind just to beat the first boss of the game.

The leveling evens out as you play and the need to grind is slowly eliminated, but the game then suffers from a different leveling issue. Ness is almost always part of the party and constantly getting stronger, but the same can't be said for the other characters. Two of the three other characters start at level 1 upon meeting them. While not uncommon in old RPG's, it leaves the party feeling like "Ness and a bunch of wimps." By the end of the game, you don't notice this problem, but it posed a problem throughout various sections of the game. I distinctly remember a boss using an attack that would almost always kill the weaker party members, which of course, meant that if the battle was won without them, the characters that desperately needed the experience were left getting none while Ness continued to get more overpowered. I may have been able to grind more to deal with this problem better, but I still found it to be frustrating.

Earthbound has a couple game mechanics that set it apart from traditional turn-based JRPG's like Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy. For one, the game technically doesn't have random battles. However, many of the enemies fly at Ness in wild patterns at 3 or 4 times Ness' speed. It's true that if you manage to get behind an enemy, you get first strike and vice versa, but most enemies at your level will charge at you in an unavoidable manner, so it isn't a lot different from random battles. Some enemies patterns' can be learned though, so it adds something to the game and a sense of more control over battles. The most notable mechanic though, is the HP digit-counter. When a character is hit, instead of losing hit points instantly, the player literally watches the character's health decrease until full damage has been received. This means that a character can receive more HP's worth of damage than they have and still survive. It's odd, but interesting as it forces players to act and think quickly. In some cases, even though a character has been dealt a mortal blow, instead of healing, it might make more sense to attack the enemy in an attempt to kill it before you lose your HP.

I've focused mainly on the gameplay up to this point, but that's not where the appeal and the "magic" of Earthbound comes from. The story is usually the driving force of an RPG after all. With Earthbound, however, it's not even really the story that makes it so memorable. It's the charming setting, characters, and sense of humor. There aren't very many games that have had jokes or content that made me genuinely laugh, but Earthbound earned its spot on that short list. It constantly breaks RPG conventions and pokes fun at what we know and love about traditional RPG's. I'd hate to spoil the highlights of the game to anyone who hasn't played it yet, but it's hard to imagine someone finishing Earthbound and walking away without having any favorite moments. If not a single thing in the game makes you laugh, smile, or at least chuckle, you just might not have a soul.

Another thing that is often heavily praised about Earthbound is the soundtrack. It contains a lot of atmospheric tracks to accompany the strange adventures of Ness and his friends. This isn't always a positive thing though, as it often amounts to nothing but noise as you travel through dungeons. Not only that, but most of the time, the loop is painfully obvious, with a large audio hiccup breaking the atmosphere. Outside of the atmospheric tracks though, there are some memorable tunes. The goofy theme of Saturn Valley is quirky and catchy while the theme for Ness' home is emotional and evokes feelings of nostalgia. Earthbound's soundtrack does a good job of conveying a lot of different emotions and accompanies key points and locations in the game very well.

Even with a great soundtrack and sense of humor, I wasn't quite convinced that Earthbound deserved to be in so many "Best RPG" lists. That is, until I reached the ending. I hate to be so easily swayed by such a small portion of a game, but Earthbound's ending is one of the best I've seen and really pulls the game together. The feeling you get from the final battle is difficult to put into words, especially without spoiling anything, but to say the least, it's very satisfying. Then when the game comes to a close and all's said and done, I honestly felt a little sad to say goodbye. I can't say the ending is so good it made me forget entirely about the game's flaws... but it certainly comes close.

I was reluctant to let Earthbound win me over. At first, I just thought the game was ugly and janky. I had trouble looking past the game's pacing issues and got sick of walking through all of the cities. The word, "overrated," kept coming to mind. Somehow though, by the end, I couldn't help but be won over. It's a refreshing experience and a nice change of pace from your average RPG. I guess that means I'm with the group that likes Earthbound... and the group that wants to play Mother 3.

Monday, September 12, 2011


It's true. I've decided to give this another go. There's just too much on my mind about games for me to not have some kind of outlet. The excitement for Mega Man Legends 3, and the disappointment of its cancellation... The hype for the return of Duke Nukem... and more disappointment at the final product. PSN's fiasco where it was out of commission for about a month... A lot has happened while I've been away, not all of it good. That being said, there have been a lot of great games this year and I've had a lot to play, not only from this year, but years past. Now the issue is where to begin and which games to talk about. A few biggies have been:

Pokemon: Black/White-
I started this game excited, and feeling nostalgic. It was all new, but it felt just like old Pokemon. Somewhere in the middle though, my attitude towards it changed, and by the end, it was a chore to finish. Tough to explain what happened there. Just felt slow after a while I suppose.

Deadly Premonition-

Alice: Madness Returns-
It shared the same release date as Duke Nukem Forever. Even before all the terrible reviews started pouring in for Duke, I thought to myself, "I think I'd enjoy this game more." Damn, did I ever make the right choice. I got a fun 3D platformer with a lot of style in the end.

Yeah, I know it's not a game, but it's a point of interest. I decided to jump on the bandwagon early, which is rare for me. I tend to wait until there's a solid library of games for a console before I pick one up. ... Probably should've waited this time around too.

Xbox 360-
When I posted last, I didn't have a 360. I decided to get one exclusively to be able to play with more friends. I don't regret my decision, as it's a much better system for multiplayer. Too bad the end result is playing nothing but fighting games all the time. But hey, I got to play Deadly Premonition because of it.

Mortal Kombat-
It came back with a vengeance. I don't even like UMK3 that much, but without question, after UMK3, the series went downhill FAST. This new installment, MK9, redeems the series and brings it back triumphantly.

There's plenty more to be discussed, I'm just trying to give it another go. Two words don't really do Deadly Premonition justice, so I'll probably come back to that one. I've still got plenty more I need to play. There are a lot of good games on the horizon, and even more that are already out that I just haven't picked up or played yet. I think I'm at least going to try and do a weekly post about what I've been playing. Just trying to get into the spirit again.